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Clinical trials of integrative medicine: testing whether magic works?

 

I just thought that I’d take the editor’s (and, speaking for Steve, the founder’s) prerogative to promote our own efforts. Regular readers of SBM are familiar with our message with respect to randomized clinical trials of highly implausible “complementary and alternative medicine” treatments, such as homeopathy or reiki. Well, believe it or not, Steve and I managed to get a commentary published in a very good journal in which we present the SBM viewpoint with respect to these trials. Even better, at least for now, you can read it too, because it doesn’t appear to be behind a paywall. (I’m at home as I write this, and I can read the whole thing on my wifi, no VPN needed.)

The article is entitled “Clinical trials of integrative medicine: testing whether magic works?” There’s also been a fair amount of news coverage on the article, and I’ve been frantically doing interviews over the last couple of days, including:

There are likely to be at least a couple more, given the interviews I’ve done; that is, unless editors reject the ideas.

In any case, Steve and I are interested in your comments. Trends in Molecular Medicine is good in that it published our article and it’s a pretty high impact review journal, but it doesn’t have a section for comments. So consider this your section for comments on our article.

Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Homeopathy

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Vitamin K Refusal – The New Anti-Vax

vitamin K molecules

Variations of the vitamin K molecule.

A small but increasing number of parents are refusing vitamin K injections for their newborns, an intervention recommended since 1961. This is yet another example of the difference between a science-based and philosophy-based approach to medicine. Science has given us the tool of knowledge, and in medicine that knowledge can have very practical applications.

The term “vitamin” was coined in 1912 by the Polish biochemist Kazimierz Funk. A vitamin is an organic nutrient that an organism requires in small amounts but cannot synthesize in adequate amounts and therefore must obtain from the diet. Knowledge of specific vitamins, their food source, and their biochemical activity in the body, has allowed medical scientists to cure many serious nutritional diseases, such as scurvy, rickets, and blindness.

The Vitamin K family are derivatives of 2-methyl-1,4-naphthoquinone, a fat-soluble molecule. It is a cofactor necessary for the formation of factors that function in blood clotting and in bone formation. The primary effect of vitamin K deficiency is therefore bleeding. Infants are at risk for vitamin K deficiency because this molecule does not cross the placenta well. Infants are therefore born relatively deficient in vitamin K. Further, breast milk contains little vitamin K (regardless of the mother’s diet) so infants are at risk for vitamin K deficiency until they start eating solid food at around 6 months (see Clay Jones’ post on the topic here). (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Pass the Salt (But Not That Pink Himalayan Stuff)

salt_shaker_on_white

Humans, like many other animals, crave the taste of salt. Animals frequent salt licks, humans have traded salt for equal weights of gold, and the word “salary” comes from the Roman soldier’s allowance for purchasing salt. Salt appears in our language in idioms like “worth its salt” and “salt of the earth.” Shakespeare’s play King Lear is a variant of a folktale where a daughter tells her father she loves him as much as meat loves salt. In a murder mystery I read years ago, a character listed the four food groups as sweet, salty, sticky, and chocolate.

It’s no fair: everything that tastes good turns out to be bad for us. We love the taste of salt, but dietary guidelines tell us we should all limit our sodium intake to less than 2.3 grams (2300 mg) a day to avoid high blood pressure and death from cardiovascular disease. And those who are over 51, African American, or who have high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease or diabetes should limit their intake even further, to 1500mg a day or less. (Note: the salt molecule consists of an atom of sodium and an atom of chloride; 40% of the weight is sodium, so 1500 mg of sodium equals 3750 mg of salt, roughly ¾ of a teaspoon. Over 75% of our salt is already in the food, not added from the salt shaker.) In 2010, the American Heart Association lowered its recommendations to 1500 mg a day for everyone. We thought that was good advice, but new evidence has muddied the waters. (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition, Public Health

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“Atavistic oncology” revisited: Dr. Frank Arguello responds

gr6

EDITOR’s NOTE: There are three Addendums after this post, containing the complete text of e-mails.

EDITOR’s NOTE #2 (8/19/14 4:51 PM): There is one more Addendum, as Dr. Arguello has sent me another e-mail.

EDITOR’s NOTE #3 (8/20/14 7:18 PM): There is yet another Addendum, as Dr. Arguello is now complaining to my place of work.

EDITOR’s NOTE #4 (8/21/14 5:30 PM): And the beat goes on. See Dr. Arguello’s next e-mail.

The following post will be of a type that I like to refer to as “taking care of business.” That’s not to say that it won’t be, as my posts usually are, informative and entertaining, but it does say that I’m doing it instead of what I had originally had in mind because something came up. That something is a rather unhappy e-mail from the doctor about whom I wrote three weeks ago. It’s just an indication that, although it’s a great thing that this blog is becoming more and more prominent, it’s also a two-edged sword. People actually notice it when I (or other SBM bloggers) criticize them for dubious medicine. We see this in how Dr. Edward Tobinick has launched what I (and many others) consider to be a frivolous lawsuit against SBM founder Steve Novella over a post from 2013 clearly designed to silence criticism. It’s legal thuggery, pure and simple. That’s the bad end of the spectrum. I’ve been at the receiving end of similar retaliation that could have just as bad an impact on me personally as far as my career goes when antivaccine activists tried to get me fired from my job four years ago.

The more common (and far less agita-inducing) end of the spectrum consists of e-mails or letters of complaint. Sometimes they come from eminent radiologists who don’t like my criticism of their attacks on mammography studies. (Actually, truth be told, it is rarely eminent radiologists—or eminent physicians and scholars—who complain.) More commonly, it’s practitioners who object to how their treatments have been described. This time around, it’s a man named Dr. Frank Arguello, whose “atavistic chemotherapy” I criticized in one of my typical long posts that also explained why. Last week, I received this e-mail from Dr. Arguello:
(more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Evolution

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The false dichotomies of CAM and “integrative medicine”

Falsedichotomy

A lot of medical specialties have throwaway newspapers/magazines that are supported by advertising and somehow mysteriously managed to show up for free in the mailboxes of practitioners. In my case, I’ve found myself on the subscription list for such papers about oncology, but also general surgery (I’m Board-certified as a general surgeon). When I have to recertify in about three years, it will be as a general surgeon, which was really fun to try to do last time after having specialized as a breast cancer surgeon, and will likely be even more fun next time, when I will be 10 years further out from my general surgery and surgical oncology training. In any case, that must be why, no matter where I end up working, sooner or later I end up receiving General Surgery News (GSN).

As throwaway professional newspapers go, GSN is not bad. However, occasionally it publishes op-ed articles that make me scratch my head or even tick me off with their obtuseness. Lately, apparently, it’s started some blogs. The one in particular that is the center of attention for this post is by Victoria Stern, is called “The Scope” and is billed as “exploring the lesser known sides of surgery.” Of course, it’s a bit odd that some of the first posts on this blog are about work hour restrictions and whether they leave new surgeons unprepared to practice surgery, the debate over breast screening, and what it takes to train expert surgeons, none of which are exactly “lesser known sides of surgery.” Work hour restrictions, in particular, have been discussed in surgery journals, at conferences, and among surgeons ad nauseam, particularly whether we are training a generation of surgeons unable to deal with the rigors of practicing surgery in the real world.
(more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Medical Ethics

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A balanced look at gluten sensitivity

Even though it doesn’t appear on any calendar, May 2014 will go down in history as “gluten sensitivity month.” After RealClearScience picked up on a 2013 paper that brought into question the existence of non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), news sites were obliged to post their own analysis of the article, and the blogosphere was alight with pro- and anti-gluten posts. One of the authors of the paper in question, Dr. Peter Gibson of Monash University, was even mentioned on the People magazine website, which gives him the distinction of being the only researcher to be published alongside the Kardashians.

Photo by flickr user surlygirl used under a CC licence.

Photo by flickr user surlygirl used under a CC licence.

The Monash paper,1 which was previously discussed on SBM, suggested that it might be the fructans in wheat and not gluten that is responsible for symptoms in IBS sufferers who feel better on a gluten-free diet. Fructans belong to a group of short-chain carbohydrates known as FODMAPs that are readily fermented by bacteria in the intestine. If fructans were really to blame for wheat-induced gastrointestinal symptoms, this would be good news for IBS sufferers currently on a gluten-free diet — for some, a diet low in FODMAPs would be less restrictive than one without gluten, making it less prone to nutritional deficiencies.

As it stands, the existence of NCGS has neither been proven nor disproven by anyone. But gluten sensitivity sits at the intersection of several dilemmas in medicine today and, unlike how it’s betrayed in the media, is hardly an all-or-nothing affair. Proving it wrong will not instantly heal the people who have prescribed themselves a gluten-free diet. Proving it wrong will not produce a cure for IBS, a shorter time to a celiac diagnosis, or the correct way to handle potential celiac disease. Neither will proving it right. In the eyes of one gluten avoider, “Modern medicine is really good at crisis intervention…[but] they don’t do well with chronic issues”.2

With these issues in mind, it’s time to move past the media debates and fad dieters and take a balanced look at NCGS. This overview will use four recent articles by the Monash group1, 3, 4, 5 as a framework to uncover some of the factors contributing to the gluten sensitivity phenomenon. Even though it has been gone over many times, a discussion of the FODMAPs study is still in order — in fact, essential — to appreciate the central importance of the elimination diet in diagnosing a food sensitivity. Along the way, we’ll get an idea of who the gluten sensitive might be, how successful gluten-free diets really are, and how challenging it is to pursue a celiac diagnosis. (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition

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Separating Fact from Fiction in Pediatric Medicine: Nocturnal Enuresis

chirobedwetting

There is no role of chiropractic in treating childhood bedwetting

In pediatrics, very few things are completely black and white. This is an aspect of conventional medicine in general that tends to separate the approach of science-based practitioners from that of proponents of the many forms of irregular medicine commonly discussed on SBM. They appear to experience no shame in claiming absolute certainty while doling out all manner of implausible remedies for ailments ranging from the well-established to the fictional.

While we do face questions from patients and their caregivers regarding largely invented diagnoses in pediatrics, with chronic Lyme disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity being just two of many increasingly encountered concerns, my experience has been that alternative medical providers tend to focus their efforts on the same real problems that pediatricians and family practitioners deal with on a daily basis. And I don’t believe that it is mere coincidence that these conditions are largely self-limited in nature, a fact often not shared. Parental and patient buy-in is often more easily obtained with certainty rather than nuance.

Chiropractors, for example, seem to pride themselves on their ability to cure ear infections. Of course in greater than 80% of children with acute ear infections, symptoms will resolve without any intervention whatsoever. This is why the AAP has been trying for years to decrease the rates of antibiotic prescriptions for ear infections, unfortunately with little in the way of success thus far. And when the infections don’t resolve on their own, there is no good evidence that anything a chiropractor has to offer can help. The same can be said for their claims regarding colic and gastroesophageal reflux, which I’ve written about before.

Another condition frequently mentioned by chiropractors as being particularly in their wheelhouse is nighttime bedwetting, the medical term for this being nocturnal enuresis. Rarely have I seen a chiropractic website with a section on the benefits for children that does not mention their success in curing bedwetting. Fred Clary, DC, even claims on his website to be able to cure bedwetting in the newborn baby. And to think I’ve just been ignoring the problem as a newborn hospitalist. Is it because the thought of a newborn infant gaining continence is absurd, or am I just a shill for Big Pampers?
(more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Naturopathy vs. Science: Prenatal Vitamins

Pregnant1

This is another post in the naturopathy versus science series, where a naturopath’s medical advice is assessed against the scientific evidence. Today’s topic is brought to you by Toronto naturopath Shawna Darou, who recently published her evaluation of prenatal vitamins.

Vitamin supplementation is unnecessary for the vast majority of people. You wouldn’t know this walking through a drug store, where you’ll usually find an entire aisle packed with supplements. Alternative health providers like naturopaths tend to be strong supporters of supplementation, but this advice seems to be based mainly on the belief that “vitamins are magic” rather than good science. The best research hasn’t established a strong evidence base for taking  supplements. We definitely need vitamins in our diet to live. But that’s where we should be getting those vitamins – from our food, instead of from pills. If you eat a reasonable and balanced diet, and have no medical conditions that require special consideration, vitamin supplementation won’t offer meaningful health benefits. In the absence of any deficiency, vitamin supplements seem to be useless at best and harmful at worst. (more…)

Posted in: Naturopathy

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A Statement on Cervical Manipulation and Dissections

VAD

The American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association recently published in the journal Stroke a thorough analysis of the evidence for an association between cervical manipulative therapy (CMT) and both vertebral artery dissection (VAD) and internal carotid artery dissection (ICAD). The full article is online: “Cervical Arterial Dissections and Association With Cervical Manipulative Therapy: A Statement for Healthcare Professionals From the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association.” For background, an arterial dissection is essentially a tear in the inner lining of the artery. This tear disrupts the normal flow of blood, and also causes platelets to gather at the site of injury. This can result in a blood clot at the site of the dissection. This blood clot can block flow through the artery, or it can break off and lodge downstream, blocking flow at that point. Dissections, therefore, can result in a stroke (a lack of blood flow to a portion of the brain causing damage). There are four arteries in the neck that bring blood from the heart to the brain, two carotid arteries in the front, and two vertebral arteries in the back. A dissection in one or more of these arteries is associated with 2% of all strokes, but with 8-25% of strokes in patients <45 years old. This is mostly because strokes associated with processes like atherosclerosis are much less common in the younger population. Arterial dissections are classified as either spontaneous or traumatic. Trauma can be either severe, such as whiplash injury from a car accident, or subtle, such as from yoga or simply turning one’s neck to look past the shoulder. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Antibiotics vs. the Microbiome

missing microbes

In 1850, one in four American babies died before their first birthday, and people of all ages died of bacterial infections that could have been successfully treated today with antibiotics. Unfortunately, treatments that have effects usually have side effects, and we are seeing problems due to the overuse of antibiotics. They are given to people with viral infections for which they are useless and to food animals to improve their growth. As a result, antibiotic-resistant organisms are evolving and the development of new antibiotics is not keeping up with the threat. This is common knowledge, but we’re starting to realize that there may be other problems with antibiotics even when they are used correctly to save lives.

The rates of obesity, diabetes, asthma, food allergies, hay fever, eczema, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, acid reflux disease, and esophageal cancer are all on the rise. Martin Blaser, MD, director of the Human Microbiome Program at NYU, thinks antibiotics may be to blame, either as a causal or a contributing factor. In his book Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues, he describes some of the fascinating research he and others have been doing to elucidate the role of the more than 100 trillion microbes that live on and in each of us, and the possibility that antibiotics may have a causal role in several of the so-called diseases of civilization. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Evolution, Obstetrics & gynecology, Pharmaceuticals

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